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The Real McCoy

Traveling the world in search of "visual poetry"

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Sometimes it was searching for a dingo by Land Rover across the vast Australian outback. Sometimes it was wading through a Virginia swamp to find a perfect water lily.

Other times, it was simply standing — within snapping distance of the perfect scene, in the perfect light, and waiting for someone to walk through his canvas.

Taylor's work as a photographer — for National Geographic, Time magazine, ad agencies, and himself — has taken him miles. "That little camera bag has somehow gotten me around the world many times," he says, in disbelief.

Although he's only been in his new house a couple of months, it's neat and comfortable, decorated with earth tones, and highlighted with artifacts from distant lands. It's the type of place that inspires questions.

Where did these woodcarvings come from? "Africa. I'm fascinated by what people can do with a block of wood."

What's this? "An aboriginal dot painting. It tells a story."

Where was this taken? "At the president's summer palace in Bali."

Then there's the glass case in the corner of his living room. It's filled with gifts from friends he met while traveling: The skull of a dingo he "knew briefly." A rock made of lava from the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. A Guinness mug from a rugby team in Birmingham. Sand from the red dunes of the outback. A ceremonial dagger from Indonesia. A pocket watch from a French girlfriend. A PanAm pin. "I used to know a lot of flight attendants," he says.

His profession has taken him to distant lands. But what leaves the biggest impression is the people, he says. The fishermen. The farmers. The ranchers.

He seems to long to be there with them. "I don't reckon I'll be here forever," he says of Church Hill. "I tell all my friends I'll have a goat farm, that would be my dream."

But for now, Taylor has no pets. "They keep you home," he says. "You can't be a gypsy with animals." And Taylor travels about half the year. "All my photographer mates — worst string of divorces and such. You can't be hooked up or married with someone who expects your feet under the table every night." Taylor himself has been divorced.

At 63, Taylor has the attractive wisdom and sincerity of a man who has connected with all sorts of people, and with nature. His head is trimmed with neat gray hair. Copper-color glasses sit on his nose. He wears jeans, a terra cotta and brown plaid flannel shirt, brown boots and, fittingly, a brown leather photographer's vest.

Taylor grew up in North Carolina, in a small town surrounded by farms. He picked cotton and dug peanuts as a child. He also daydreamed. "When I grew up I knew I was going to see the world," he says.

His memories are vivid. "Boy, I never missed a visit by the bookmobile. I can still remember what it smelled like," he says, sitting in his dining room. Bookshelves stand against two walls — one full of hardcover coffee-table books with titles like "Goodbye Picasso," "Cuba" and "The Himalayan Pilgramage," the other with novels and hardbound National Geographics. "I'd take as many as they'd let me have," he laughs.

He also recalls Life magazine. "Life was television, when Life magazine came that's how you saw the world," he says. Taylor's family got a television about the time he left his hometown for college. Today he rarely watches, except for the 6 o'clock news on BBC. "I've got too many books to read and too much work to do." His small 13-inch television sits dwarfed by CD towers and bookshelves. A New York Times and New Yorker magazine suggest two items on his to-do list. And a comfy brown leather chair with nearby light hint at the spot he favors for reading.

Taylor says that he loves waking up early and shooting wildlife. "I'm at peace with nature."

In friends, he looks for sincerity. He talks about certain people being "the real McCoy," and he respects them for it.

Like his buddy Stuart Nunn, a rancher from the outback. "He'd make Crocodile Dundee look like a wimp," he says, laughing, as we look at a photo of Nunn's dusty face, weather-worn and honest. Or like Louis Armstrong, who Taylor met early in his career when he snuck backstage and somehow ended up in Armstrong's dressing room. When Taylor apologized for disturbing his intermission, Armstrong smiled and reached for his trumpet and replied, "Daddy, it goes with the horn." Taylor has one of the photos he took of Armstrong that day hanging immediately inside the doorway of his home.

Usually though, if Taylor is "street shooting," as he was recently in Mexico and Cuba, he shoots first and talks later. He always snaps the picture the minute he sees it, then introduces himself, chats and maybe buys his subject a coffee or gets invited back to his or her house.

Taylor is not interested in all the latest equipment. He now uses a scanner and computer to edit his own images before he considers them finished, but he hasn't moved to a digital camera yet. He usually works with a Leica or Nikon. And though he started by shooting black and white film for newspapers, he now can't imagine going without color.

His idol, Ernst Haas, who shot color photography for Life magazine, once said, "Color photography lends itself to expressing a visual type of poetry."

And that's stuck with Taylor. Early in his career as a photojournalist, Taylor says, he thought "if we photograph these things and show them to people it would make people hesitate to do them again." But now he decides that history is bound to repeat itself. Today his photography leans more towards the poetry Haas spoke about.

"I still consider myself a photojournalist," he says, but now "I try to paint pictures with my camera."

Most recently Taylor put together images he's been taking of Chincoteague through the years in a book called "Saltwater Cowboys." The island is full of real McCoys for him to snap and chat with.

Taylor says he'd like to put together more collections of his work from different areas. He's already working on one of the Australian outback and one of a small Portuguese-owned island called Madeira. Plus, he says, it would be an excuse to go back and see his friends.

"Other than bringing a picture home and putting it on the wall or getting it published," he says, "that's the thing you end up with, this extended family."

And he's still in search of that goat farm.S



Medford Taylor will be signing copies of "Saltwater Cowboys" at Barnes & Noble, 5501 W. Broad St., on Jan. 25 at noon.

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